His campaign was appealing for its unconventional vibe, but it was his message about the economic injustices of modern America that resonated with millions
He thinks hes running for mayor of America, whispered an exasperated campaign aide as Bernie Sanders attempted to slip quietly into a well-known Chicago diner for breakfast.
The morning of the Illinois primary in March was pregnant with anticipation, one of the several moments in the past 14 months when the presidency of the United States was conceivably up for grabs. The night before, thousands of euphoric supporters had shaken the fabric of the citys Auditorium Theatre with their stomping and cheers. Yet, here the former of mayor of Burlington was doing his best Larry David impersonation, awkwardly curbing the enthusiasm of those around him by trying to make as little fuss as possible about eating an omelette in front of a dozen cameras.
Gruff and avuncular, Sanders inspires affection and respect among those who work for him but, occasionally, frustration too. The breakfast at Lou Mitchells was intended as a photo opportunity, designed to show their candidate chatting with ordinary people and indulging in the sort of retail political theatre that the Clintons, Bushes and Barack Obama have made an indispensable hallmark of power.
When Sanders chose instead to walk briskly to his table and get on with his eggs, it summed up why millions of voters were drawn to him: despite, and often, due to this lack of polish, they were attracted to the campaign of a cranky old man who many had barely heard of previously, who was unafraid to describe himself as a democratic socialist and who, most of all, refused to play by the rules.
Over the course of this unlikely campaign, I covered more than 50 Sanders events for the Guardian. It was a only a fraction of the several hundred rallies that this 74-year-old and his wife Jane clocked up, but it was enough to encounter a remarkably consistent explanation for his ultimate victory in 22 states as he fought Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president. Many voters were excited about someone willing to rail against an economic and political system that was rigged against them and unafraid of dreaming big about an alternative vision of America. But all of them, critics included, were agreed that here was a rare breed in public life: an authentic.
Eventually, Sanders himself began to realise there was power in this anti-charisma. During walkabouts in New York and California like Illinois, two more primaries where expectations of Sanders performance briefly ran far ahead of the eventual reality a political rock star began to look comfortable with his fame. The adulation he received from fans during all those packed rallies helps partly explain why he was reluctant to let it go, long after those around him had privately conceded the delegate arithmetic was insurmountable. But another factor was that he had only just gotten used to the idea that he stood a chance at all.
On a cold February night in Iowa, the unthinkable became thinkable. After a stunning start to a presidential primary season that would soon smash all the conventional rules, Sanders finally began believing he could become the first self-proclaimed socialist in the White House.
Earlier that evening, the independent senator from Vermont had held Hillary Clinton tantalizingly close to a tie in the Iowa caucuses. As a presidential candidate, she was deemed so inevitable that few serious Democrats even considered running against her for the partys nomination. Yet the former secretary of state and first lady came within a few votes of losing her first encounter with the unpredictable 2016 electorate. This time it was not the charismatic Barack Obama rewriting the script, but an even more unknown outsider who was promising, and now threatening to deliver, a political revolution.
More election earthquakes were to follow. Within a week, Sanders would win New Hampshire by a record landslide. Soon after that, he would defy a 20-point deficit in opinion polls to take the primary in Michigan too. A string of successive victories in states out west would lead to dreams of even pulling off an upset in California.